It's hard not to fill up on the chips and salsa that you get at Mexican restaurants like these from La Cocina de Mamá. Be careful not to fill up before your dinner comes, though!

Everything – well, some things – you wanted to know about appetizers

By Robin Garr

Appetizers! There’s something about simply hearing the name that gets your taste buds working, or mine, anyway. It even sounds so much more appealing than the hoity-toity French “hors d’oeuvres,” am I right?

So what is an appetizer, anyway, and where did this idea of offering a small, tasty bit before the main course come from?

This is where things start getting a little complicated, so stick with me. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines appetizer as “a food or drink that stimulates the appetite and is usually served before a meal.”

Sharon Tyler Herbst’s New Food Lover’s Companion concurs, mostly, calling an appetizer any small, bite-size food served before a meal. It may be finger food or a first course served at the table with knife and fork.

The word “appetizer” first appeared in English around 1820, but it became popular in the U.S. and England around 1860, perhaps because nobody really know how to spell “hors d’oeuvres.” Curiously, I discovered to my confusion during a couple of trips to Australia and New Zealand a while back, folks down under don’t use the word appetizer at all. They call that preliminary course an entrée, which is accurate French but quite confusing to a traveling Yank.

Do apps really “whet and excite the palate”?

So what is it about appetizers that delights us so much, anyway? To start with, I’m going to question the conventional wisdom that the name implies, “to whet and excite the palate.”

How does that even work? If you’ve ever filled up on all the delicious free chips and salsa at your favorite Mexican restaurant and got too full to finish your main course, you know that the human system isn’t really designed to work that way.

A cynic might suspect that the appetizer tradition simply affords the restaurant an opportunity to charge you for an additional dish, but there are no cynics on this bus. Let’s just agree that the enjoyment of dining out is only enhanced by having one more tasty treat on the table.

But here’s a twist on the narrative: If I go out to dine and I’m being thrifty, or just not all that hungry (perhaps thanks to a ration of chips and salsa), I’ve been known to order a comparatively hearty appetizer instead of a main course. I save a few calories compared with a larger entrée, save a few bucks, and still get to enjoy the chef’s skills and the restaurant experience.

Another approach: Build a meal with two or three appetizers as small plates, and enjoy a tour of the chef’s work.

Does dining on apps make you seem cheap?

Don’t worry about being seen as a cheapskate. In my experience, restaurateurs are happy to have you do this. Consider adding a substantial bump to your tip to make up the difference to the server, though. The server will be happy, and you’ll still come out ahead.

Curious to find out if I’m the only one who thinks this is a good idea, I asked Facebook friends if anyone else ever orders a starter or salad as a main course. The answer: Do they ever! At least three out of four responses said “of course!”

I also invited social-media friends to tell me about their favorite appetizer at a local eatery, and hoo boy did they want to talk. A few highlights:

  • • The clear crowd favorite was green chili wontons at the Bristol Bar & Grille, which drew raves from a half-dozen stalwarts. Also garnering multiple nominations were fried tofu squares at Heart & Soy with three mentions.
    • Undervalued vegetables take center stage as chef-driven appetizers like the pickled beet salad and the sweet chili vinegar glazed brussels sprouts at Fat Lamb; beets and ricotta at Bar Vetti; fried brussels sprouts at Scout & Scholar Brewing in Bardstown; fried brussels sprouts salad at Village Anchor; brussels sprout salad at Four Pegs; and cauliflower salad at Chik’n & Mi. Who knew that those veggies that Mom made you eat could taste so good?
    • Fried calamari is another crowd-pleaser, with Chik’n & Mi and Porcini coming in for favorable mention.
    • And so it goes, from the simple (El Molcajete’s chips and salsa) to the fancy (daikon fries with curry-honey mayo at Dragon King’s Daughter or duck confit flautas at Guaca Mole).
    • My favorite? It’s a tough pick, but when Seviche offers blistered shishito peppers on its appetizer menu, I can. not. resist.
Good apps demonstrate the chef’s skill

Here’s a fun fact about appetizers: In a good kitchen that takes pride in its work, that price won’t show only in the main dishes. The small plates, salads and sides, too, will show close attention to creativity, quality and flavor.

So it was with our recent visit to Common Haus Hall, where a $10.50 order of sauerkraut balls demonstrated the skills of Chef Jonathan Exum’s kitchen. A half-dozen perfectly fried portions of sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and Bavarian cheese got up-close and personal within a perfectly fried, golden-brown crust.This demonstration of frying skill signaled, if we had been in any doubt, that a main-course schnitzel would be a safe bet.

Bahn Xeo, a Vietnamese stuffed rice-flou crepe, is one of my favorite appetizers at Vietnam Kitchen.
Bahn Xeo, a Vietnamese stuffed rice-flou crepe, is one of my favorite appetizers at Vietnam Kitchen.

Another great appetizer that I enjoyed this year is Vietnam Kitchen’s Vietnamese crepe (VA17 Banh xeo chay, $9.25, with tofu, or A17 Banh Xeo, $9.50, with shrimp. This item is absolutely filling enough to serve as your meal, although it’s hard to stop with just one dish at VK! It looks like a giant omelet folded over sizzling ingredients, but it’s actually made with rice flour and coconut milk, tinted yellow with turmeric. It’s quickly cooked in a wok, then folded over bean sprouts, grilled onions and either tofu or shrimp.

I could say more, but it’s your turn. There are tons of great apps around town. Get out there and start eating, and don’t be shy if you want to make an appetizer your meal. Or two or three.